In The Crown season five, episode five, Dominic West’s Prince Charles and Olivia Williams’s Camilla Parker Bowles break away from their families for a private moment on the phone. It starts out innocently: Charles is nervous about a speech he’s set to deliver in Oxford, and Camilla gives him feedback. Soon, however, the call takes a raunchy turn: “I wish I could live inside your trousers,” Charles coos.
Somewhere in the English countryside, a man with radio and recording equipment toggles between frequencies. He pauses as he recognizes the posh voices coming out the other end. Then, he presses the record button.
It’s an intimate—and, well, fairly illicit—conversation. But did this really happen between the now king and queen? Or is it an exaggerated plot point in a historical-fiction series?
While The Crown is known for its sensationalization, the truth in this case is just as scandalous as fiction. Much of Williams and West’s dialogue is lifted from the transcript of an actual 1989 phone call between the real Charles and Camilla, which was published by various tabloids across the world in 1993.
In November 1992—following the revelations of the Prince and Princess of Wales’s troubled marriage in Andrew Morton’s Diana: Her True Story—the British tabloids began reporting rumblings of an alleged controversial conversation between Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles. The Daily Mirror claimed that “a tape recording of an intimate phone call between the Prince of Wales and Camilla Parker Bowles has been played to the Daily Mirror.” The Sun too ran a similar story. Yet both stopped short of publishing the full contents of the call, opting to instead allude to what was said. At the time, the recording’s authenticity was very much in question: “At the heart of the issue lies the question: Is the tape genuine?” pondered the Evening Standard at the time.
In January 1993, an Australian magazine, New Idea, published a detailed and graphic transcript. In addition to the male and female voices saying they loved each other, the man also expressed a wish to “live inside your trousers or something.” He then joked about turning into a tampon. Other international outlets began reporting on the call’s specifics too. Eventually, the Sunday Mirror in the United Kingdom shared an extensive transcript as well. Colin Myler, the editor at the time, wrote a piece justifying his decision to do so: “I believe it is wrong that the near nine million readers of this newspaper should be denied the right to read something so important affecting the future King of England, when people in Australia, Germany, America, and Ireland already have.” Suddenly, the most intimate moments between Charles and Camilla were everywhere—made worse by the fact that both were also married. The BBC radio summed up public mood best: “If genuine, [it] would be hard to reconcile with the dignity of the monarchy.”
How did the call get leaked in the first place? At the time, the source was said to be a radio enthusiast with an impressive scanner. Yet questions arose: In August 1992, a recorded phone call between Princess Diana and James Gilbey had also been published. Was there something bigger going on here? “There has been considerable speculation as to a ‘dirty tricks’ campaign aimed at the Royal Family,” wrote the Evening Standard. There has been no hard proof of the more nefarious scheme that many suspected, however.
Decades later, though, there was indeed a clear violation of the royal family’s privacy when making telephone calls: It came to light in 2011 that reporters from News of the World hacked the voicemails of various members of the family from 2005 to 2007. Arrests and convictions of the editors and writers involved followed, and the paper soon shuttered. To this day, Prince Harry has continued to seek legal action against the outlets he claims participated in this unethical practice.